Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: Bellarmine Prep – and Puyallup – honor Cubs’ Jon Lester

Puyallup’s Jon Lester was a Bellarmine Preparatory School star in 2002, the year the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the second round and he began his professional career. Now, the city will name a baseball field at Wildwood Park after him.
Puyallup’s Jon Lester was a Bellarmine Preparatory School star in 2002, the year the Boston Red Sox drafted him in the second round and he began his professional career. Now, the city will name a baseball field at Wildwood Park after him. Staff file, 2002

It’s been more than a decade since Jon Lester threw a pitch for Bellarmine Preparatory School in Tacoma, more than 20 years since he played recreational baseball in Puyallup.

Neither the school nor the city has forgotten him.

In fact, while Lester and his Chicago Cubs teammates are dealing with the New York Mets in postseason baseball, his South Sound fans have found new ways to honor him here.

On Thursday, Bellarmine Prep will hold its latest Hall of Fame induction, enshrining Lester both as an athlete and for other achievements, retiring his jersey.

“Unfortunately, Jon isn’t going to be there,” Bellarmine athletic director Ed Ploof said. “We have tentative plans to bring him back and acknowledge him in front of our students once he’s free. We don’t have a date yet.”

In Puyallup, where Lester’s parents, John and Kathie, live and raised their family, the City Council voted Oct. 13 to name a Wildwood Park ballfield “Jon Lester Field.”

The city also wants to have a small ceremony with Lester present but isn’t certain whether that will be this month or next.

“If the Cubs get to the World Series, we won’t see him until November,” Puyallup Councilman Tom Swanson said.

Retiring Lester’s jersey was an easy call for his former high school. After all, the 2002 graduate was a three-time Narrows League MVP and state high school player of the year before moving on to win two World Series with the Boston Red Sox.

But naming a field where Lester once played baseball created something of a controversy in Puyallup.

Parks and Recreation director Sarah Harris explained the process.

“The way city rules are, a council member can recommend it, and Tom did that,” Harris said. “I took it to the Park and Recreation board, and they were in favor of it.

“Then it went to the Design Review and Historic Preservation board, and they found it did not meet criteria,” she said. “They all liked the idea, but it didn’t meet the naming rules passed in March 2013.”

Among those rules was one that said the name of any private citizen could only be considered after he or she had been dead five years.

Lester, who battled and beat lymphoma as a 22-year-old, remains very much alive.

When the matter was returned to council, there was debate — not on Lester’s qualifications, but on the rules — before the renaming of the ballfield was approved by a 5-2 vote.

“There were two solid votes for and two solid votes against,” Councilman John Hopkins said. “There were three reluctant votes for it. I was one of those opposed.

“I’m not opposed to the plaque, that doesn’t bother me in the least. It’s a sports field, clearly different than a major building. I have no problem with a ballfield. But it didn’t fit within the criteria of the rules our own committee came up with.

“What really should be happening,” Hopkins said, “is we should change the rules and send it back to the committee and say ‘Hey, this is a good guy, let’s put a plaque on a field for him.’ 

Even Swanson, whose idea began the process, was a bit sheepish.

“Full disclosure,” Swanson said. “I voted for those rules (back in 2013).”

What changed his mind? Baseball.

“I was talking to his dad, a retired Pierce County deputy,” Swanson said. “Dads talk about their kids pitching, whether it’s Game 7 of the World Series or your kid pitching Little League. It never changes.

“This is for Jon, but it’s for kids who play there, too. They will watch him on TV, then go play on his field. How cool is that?”

The Lester family, like son Jon, was unavailable to discuss the idea.

“I think they’re back in Chicago with Jon,” Harris, the parks director, said. “I remember Jon playing rec league from ’91 through ’94, and he played basketball with my son. Jon’s mom was his rec league coach.

“This is a feel-good decision. It reminds kids that they can succeed, that someone who worked hard and played on the same field as them did succeed.”

Lester was born in Tacoma, went to high school in Tacoma. Swanson, however, was more than willing to claim him for Puyallup.

“He’s our guy. Our parks department has one of the top five left-handed pitchers of this generation, and we weren’t taking advantage of that,” Swanson said. “He played at the Wildwood Park field we’re going to name for him.”

So did Swanson, who has kept a sense of humor about that.

“After Jon Lester pitching, one of the other great sporting moments in history there was my only career over-the-fence home run,” Swanson said. “I was in third or fourth grade.”

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638